March 03, 2021

Interview with Philippa Dowding, author of Firefly

 Last night I had the pleasure of speaking with author Philippa Dowding at the virtual launch of her newest middle grade novel Firefly.
Written by Philippa Dowding
DCB (Cormorant Books)
200 pp.
Ages 9-12
February 2021

For those who did not attend, this is a version of the chat we had. 

Philippa Dowding (Photo by Andrea Gutsche)

Helen Kubiw:  Firefly, or Fifi as she was called by her mother, is a young girl with a lot on her plate. If she’d been an adult or even an older teen, I’d have been impressed by her fortitude and shrewdness. Yet she was only 13  when she started living rough, on the street, periodically to remove herself from an intolerable home situation. Why did you choose to make her this age?
Philippa Dowding:  Firefly is 13, almost 14, as the story begins in the week before Halloween. She’s starting grade nine late due to living in the park across from her mother’s house, until a social worker finds her and sends her to live with her Aunt Gayle, in the Corseted Lady costume shop, which is based on a real costume shop run by my extended family in Toronto’s east end.

I chose this age for Firefly because it’s a tipping point, a cusp, between childhood and adolescence. As an adolescent, you see the world in a more objective way than you do as a young child. You can see for instance, the bad choices that the adults around you have made. You can also begin to change things for yourself, with resilience and help.

So Firefly is just old enough to begin to see how her mother, who is suffering mental health and addiction issues, has affected her, and how she has had to cope with that.

HKI think that many of us do not wholly understand the desperation that compels someone to end up on the street, especially someone as young as Firefly. But she doesn’t just disappear onto the streets. She lives in the park across from her mother’s house. Why have you chosen this situation for Firefly?
Philippa Dowding:  I live in downtown Toronto near several small parks, they’re fascinating for many reasons, and they make a great story setting. Most of us can imagine a park, even younger readers. I’ve set another story in a downtown Toronto park, The Gargoyle at the Gates, which takes place in a little park with a wrought-iron fence with a fountain on Queen Street East.

In a metropolis like Toronto, a park is urban green space. It’s essential to everyone’s well-being, and it draws everyone there, so it’s kind of a microcosm of the entire society. You see families, children, single people, older people, dogwalkers, kids throwing a baseball, everyone. In the real world, there are tents in all of the parks in my neighbourhood, this isn’t new but it seems to be more visible during COVID. There is a crisis of mental health, addiction and homelessness in our society, and that is in our parks, too. Firefly is able to hide in plain sight in the park, for a whole summer before a social worker finds her.

So why a park? I’m fascinated by urban parks, it’s a great setting for a story, and a microcosm of society. For Firefly, the proximity to her mother’s house also let’s her convince herself she’s not living on the street. She’s just waiting, in the park.

HKI was surprised to learn that it’s not unusual for a women’s shelter to limit themselves to  clients 16 years of age and older. Though Firefly lied and used Jennie’s facilities, why provide that lifeline for Firefly, as tenuous as it was, rather than have child protective services called in immediately and reconnect her with her aunt?
Philippa Dowding:  Let’s first let’s talk about Jennie’s, the fictional drop-in women’s centre in the story. I live near Women’s College Hospital in downtown Toronto, my kids were born there, we have used the hospital as a family for decades. WCH does great work in women’s mental health among other things, so I really wanted to include them in the story. The full name of the drop-in centre in the story is “The Jennie Smillie Robertson Women’s Centre,” which is completely made up, it doesn’t exist. But Jennie Smillie Robertson was a real person. She was Canada’s first female surgeon, and she was one of the founders of Women’s College Hospital in 1911. At the time, she and a group of female doctors couldn’t find a Toronto hospital that would allow them to work, so they started their own.

Although no child should have to do this, I gave Firefly the lifeline of free therapy sessions at Jennie’s because I wanted to show Firefly’s resilience and resourcefulness, that cusp of moving into adolescence and beginning to try to take care of herself. She has to lie to the staff at Jennie’s though, and tell them she is 16, so she is always scared of being caught. I wanted to touch on the reality that, as you say, most women’s shelters don’t take children on their own under 16.

Finally, I didn’t want Firefly to be completely alone. This is a book for younger readers, after all. She has a friendship with a street person, Moss Cart, who lives in the park with her, but that’s it. The advice that she gets from various therapists at Jennie’s is valuable; they gave her words like “PTSD” and “dissociation”, plus they teach her breathing and grounding techniques, plus self-talk to help her calm herself and stay present. All worth sharing with younger readers, especially if they have never heard these terms or strategies before.

HKThough Firefly  may not necessarily realize it, she has numerous coping strategies which she has developed to help her survive her circumstances, and one is how she deals with the relationship she has with her mother. Typically she only refers to her as Joanne-the-mother, 
dissociating herself from their relationship. Yet when her mother reaches out, it throws Firefly off completely. What does this tell us about their relationship, and do you foresee them ever having a relationship, and, if so, in what configuration?
Philippa Dowding:  Yes, we know early on through flashbacks and bad dreams, that Firefly’s mother is neglectful, and struggles with mental health and addiction problems, so her care of Firefly has been inconsistent.

Firefly is particularly thrown off by two letters from her mother which come through the social worker, one near the beginning of the book, and one near the end.

The first letter from Joanne-the-mother sends Firefly into a PTSD tailspin for twelve hours. It causes a serious trauma response from Firefly, but the second letter from her mother 10 days later and near the end of the book, she handles much better.

I wanted to show some growth there, between the first letter and the second. Firefly is in a much better place at the end of the story when the second letter arrives. She feels much safer and is more grounded with Aunt Gayle in the Corseted Lady costume shop and is just beginning her long journey to recovery.  

As to going forward with her mother and having a relationship one day, it’s possible, anything is possible in fiction! But I leave it up to Firefly at the end of the book, and to the reader to imagine that future, however it unfolds. I want the reader, kids and adults alike, to see that healing is a long process and when the book ends, Firefly is at the very beginning of that process. She can choose what happens next though, she’s the one in control, and that’s an important message, too.

HKAnother coping strategy Firefly has involves holding onto things that offer her security, like her AC/DC hoodie. But her aunt’s costume shop, the Corseted Lady, offers her opportunities to be someone else as she chooses. You have her dressed as a World War 2 fly boy with a leather jacket and goggle, gloves and flying ace hat; as an 1800s salon girl; a 1500s monk; and even a medieval warrior. Why choose these costumes for Firefly to wear?

Philippa Dowding:  Another great question! Yes, disguise, costume, clothing, provenance of clothes, who has clothes and who doesn’t (there’s a bully in the story who keeps ripping the clothes off his step-brother’s back), the ability to feel powerful or vulnerable in clothes, trying to define oneself through costume, all this plays a huge part in the story as you would expect. I set the story in a costume shop with 7 million pieces, for this very reason.

So, early on in the story Firefly decides to wear costumes to school, and to be honest, most of the costumes I chose were personal favourites, but I also wanted to pick clothes for her that are powerful, and unconventional. The first disguise she chooses for school is a flyboy costume, which is on the cover of the book. And she wonders about the young man who wore the outfit; did he get to grow up, she wonders? It’s a real WW2 jacket, so it really belonged to someone. And she feels empathy with this young man, who couldn’t have been much bigger or much older than her. He went to war, he must have suffered too.

The next day she dresses as a saloon girl from the 1800s, but this is too vulnerable a costume.  She dislikes it because the boots are too hard to tie up, which would be a disadvantage if she had to get away from someone in a hurry. She’s always looking for the exits.

Then after the saloon girl, she wears a re-created monk’s cloak from the 1500s. And she loves this costume, because she can hide in it. She feels very safe at school in this hooded cloak. The next day, she chooses a medieval warrior outfit, which is very powerful, but also hilarious because it’s so authentic looking, and she gets a lot of questions about it, which begins to feel fun to her.  Then she goes to school as a motorcycle cop, with green goggles, and really opens up in her French class because of the costume. She can be anyone, say anything, become anything, in her costumes.

Except for the saloon girl, these costumes give Firefly an opportunity to feel connected, safe, but also disguised. The whole book is really about self-discovery; who is Firefly? Who does she want to be? How does she want the world to see her? A costume shop is a pretty great setting for that.

HKThough many people believe that PTSD  only results from a single traumatic event, cumulative developmental trauma can come from chronic neglect.  This is undoubtedly Firefly’s situation.  Talk to us about Firefly’s PTSD. 
Philippa Dowding:  Yes, Firefly suffers from PTSD, post traumatic stress disorder, and probably cumulative developmental trauma. She has a blackout, a possible fugue state at one point in the story, and there are several instances of her being dissociative, but the story isn’t about her being stuck there, or being defined by her mother’s long-term neglect or her own PTSD. The story is about Firefly getting to a safe place, and how she takes the first steps toward change.

It’s going to be a long journey, a long story, and this is just the start of it, but we know Firefly is going to be okay. She has a therapist at the end of the story, a good friend in Charlie, and a stable place to live with her aunt, who loves her.

HKOne of my favourite characters is Aunt Gayle. She’s fierce but never heavy-handed. She’s open and protective, while giving Firefly both freedom and security. Your acknowledgement tells us Aunt Gayle is based on your sister-in-law. Is she based on her personality, her actions, or both?
Philippa Dowding:  Yes, the character of Aunt Gayle is inspired by my sister-in-law, who started her costume shop in Toronto’s east end in the late 1970s.

But this is a piece of fiction, so Aunt Gayle is inspired by my sister-in-law, not an exact copy of her, although people who have read the book and who knew her definitely see her personality there. And her costume shop is pretty exactly described in the book.

She was determined, successful, creative, energetic, she loved her family and friends with a fierce devotion. She was also a world champion knitter. We once took her to a baseball game at Rogers Stadium, and she sat and knit the whole time! We always had beautiful hand-knit scarves and hats and sweaters as gifts, which she whipped off for us. So, her devotion and loyalty to her family and friends, her talent as a costume designer, her smarts as a boss and business person, that’s really what I wanted to capture in the story. And her tireless knitting. I think that pretty much sums her up!

HKThere’s a saying about the kindness of strangers and Aunt Gayle is definitely kind and must seem like a stranger to Firefly. But her kindness is smart, not saccharine. She extends that kindness through normalcy like encouraging Firefly to take as many baths as she chooses or offering her hot chocolate with marshmallows. In fact, asking Firefly if she’d like her hair braided is one of the gentlest and most intimate of moments for me. Why do you think those simple acts of thoughtfulness had such an impact on helping Firefly recover? 
Philippa Dowding:   That’s so interesting that you found that one of the tenderest moments. I guess it is tender, isn’t it? Firefly has had few moments of normal adult tenderness in her life, so something normal for everyone else, a family member brushing and braiding your hair, is not normal for Firefly. It takes her a while to realize that these moments of connection are normal. She talks about “normal, normal, normal” all the way through the book. Her life with Aunt Gayle is the new normal and she’s just getting used to it.

I guess the fact that Aunt Gayle just starts braiding her hair, is one of the simple acts a mother does for a child, family members do for each other. Aunt Gayle is trying to figure out their relationship too, it’s entirely new for her, and so braiding Firefly’s hair is kind of automatic and something that she did for her daughter in the story (who is at university). It’s one of those moments of contact that just happen in a normal family; let me tend to you, let me brush your hair, let me make you presentable.

So that’s what is so tender about it and so powerful for Firefly. It’s just an automatic reaching out, let me groom you, that makes us all human.

HKLet’s talk about The Corseted Lady costume shop. Not only does it, by Aunt Gayle’s hand, give Firefly her first home in a long time, it gives her opportunities.  It reminds me of Mr. Dressup’s Tickle Trunk that allows for pretending, for play, for friendship and for learning.  I know The Corseted Lady is based on the Toronto costume shop Thunder Thighs. Take us there vicariously so that perhaps we might experience the shop in all its glory.
Philippa Dowding:   Yes, Thunder Thighs is an amazing place, and it’s a place I’ve wanted to write about since the first time I visited it 30-plus years ago. It’s just a fantastic setting for a book, too, with so many possibilities in it. My sister-in-law and her husband and son, built the shop into a huge warehouse of film and TV costumes with 7 million pieces in it. It’s still running, as busy as ever. The company has worked on thousands and thousands of movies and television shows over the decades. Everything in the book is a pretty accurate depiction of the place.

I think at this point the best way to showcase Thunder Thighs, is to read the book, or go to the Toronto shop to rent a costume. Originally, before COVID, we were going to launch the book there and everyone was going to be able to wander the amazing rows of costumes and dress up in whatever they liked for the event. I was looking forward to reading to an audience of lobsters, medieval warriors, 1960s hippies, Dickensian flower girls, medieval warriors, and so on. Not to be, but it would have been fun!

HKOne person’s make-believe may be another’s reality and the costumes at The Corseted Lady suggest this when Firefly discovers the section called “Hobos, Urchins, Street People.”  She is upset by this collection and understandably so. Why include that scene?
Philippa Dowding:   Yes, Firefly sees the broken-down street clothes a few times near the beginning of the book; in chapter one she sees the “Dicken’s Flower Girls and Street Urchins” rack, then again in chapter four, “Hoboes, Urchins, Street People.” I put these costumes in the early chapters, because readers don’t know Firefly’s story yet. The fact that she turns away from the “Dicken’s Flower Girls and Street Urchins” then the second rack of clothes a bit later, gives us a clue that she is sensitive to something about street people, it’s our first clue that she may have been living on the street.

Also of course, these clothes are her recent reality and here in the shop the hobo and street people clothes are seen as a disguise, a costume, so there is a dissonance there for her. Her reality is leaking into the reality of the shop.

HKThough you’ve written quite a few books of middle grade fantasy, this is your first foray into realistic fiction. How did you approach writing this novel that was different from writing the speculative fiction? 
Philippa Dowding:  This book is my first piece of realistic fiction, yes, but it honestly felt a lot like writing fantasy because of the setting. Writing about a costume shop with 7 million pieces in it is just incredibly rich, magical material for a story.  In a costume shop, you can become anything, be anything, so I was always imagining the costumes, the beautiful rows and rows of possibilities as I wrote.

The book is also written in first person, which I’ve done before. The Strange Gift of Gwendolyn Golden, and the sequel, Everton Miles is Stranger than Me, and OCULUM, my middle grade dystopia, are all written in first person, so that felt familiar.

So this isn’t a piece of speculative fiction, that’s true, but in a way it is: who can Firefly become, what disguise can she wear, what transforms her? The setting felt magical and mysterious as I wrote, so it wasn’t that different from writing magic realism or fantasy.

HKBecause your realistic writing is so strong, I could see Firefly being a jumping-off story for others with young people living precarious lives. Whether they be characters we’ve already been introduced to like Firefly’s friend Charlie or the ever-clashing Scott Durkin and his stepbrother Norman Jakes, or as Firefly knows them Skinny Kid and Not-So-Skinny Kid, or any of the kids in the Library Support Group, I think any of their stories would be a great sequel. Would you consider this or have you already?
Philippa Dowding:  Thank you Helen, that’s lovely of you to say, and yes, the idea of a sequel has been passed around a little, here at home and by my publisher, so thank you to everybody for that. I guess I’m always the last one to think about a sequel, but there are some interesting possibilities for a sequel, that’s true. What happens to the street person, Moss Cart, or the tough-as-nails but heart-of-gold social worker (herself in a disguise of bad 1980s power suits) … as well as the kids.

For now, I’ve left the story in a way that readers can feel that everybody is okay, or they will be, and they can imagine how things will work out for everyone. That’s really what I hoped for this book: that it would lead to discussion about mental health, addiction, homelessness, and explore the idea that there are many possible journeys, many potential endings, that will take a long time to tell. But there are beginnings too, and this is just the start for Firefly.  

Many thanks to author Philippa Dowding for taking the time to answer my questions and sharing with readers her experiences in writing Firefly.

Thanks are also extended to Chantelle Cho, Sales & Marketing Assistant at Cormorant Books, for organizing this interview and the virtual book launch which I was pleased to attend.
Image courtesy of Rosana Khabbaz

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FYI, the video of the launch is now available at DCB's channel at


  1. thank you helen, for posting this great interview. congratulations philippa! i look forward to reading firefly!

    1. Thank you for reading our interview, Jennifer. Philippa offered so much insight into her writing and Firefly herself that I'm sure readers will appreciate both.

  2. Hi Jennifer! Hi Helen! Thank you for reading the interview Jennifer! And thank you Helen, for posting the link to the interview on YouTube below. Your questions were so great, and so well delivered. A fun night!

  3. I enjoyed listening to the interview between you and Philippa.